Joel Edgerton makes his directorial debut with an effective and creepy stalker drama.
Not all blasts from the past are welcome — and not all trips down memory lane turn out the way you might expect them to. That's a telling message for our nostalgia-soaked times, where everything old always seems to be new again. It's also one Australian actor, writer and producer Joel Edgerton is pushing in his first film in the director's chair. His filmmaking debut, The Gift, is so steeped in tension and wariness about previous deeds, figures and altercations that it crafts a psychological thriller out of it.
The feature starts, as many moody mysteries do, with a married pair moving to a new home. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are fleeing their recent baggage for a fresh beginning, the former starting a different job, the latter readying the house for trying to start a family. Out shopping one day, they meet Gordo (Edgerton, starring as well as helming), who recognises Simon from high school, though not vice versa. The three make polite, tentative plans to catch up; however, Gordo takes the pleasantries quite a bit more seriously than his reunited pals.
Cue the beginnings of a stalker drama that wouldn't feel out of place as a late '80s or early '90s effort featuring Michael Douglas — and that's a compliment. Showing his skill behind as well as in front of the camera, Edgerton ramps up the creepiness in the film's mood, script and in his supporting turn. He's also made a movie that combines slick packaging and mature-skewed content; a glossy piece of entertainment for teens, this isn't.
Indeed, again finding inspiration in familiar territory, The Gift isn't just concerned with the series of presents Gordo leaves Simon and Robyn, or his unwanted encroaching on their space, or the not-so-truthful tales he tells to get close to them, but with the chasm between how things appear and how they really are at all levels. There's a reason the audience is instantly aware that the seemingly happy couple aren't really, and that they always feel that Gordo seems both odd and somewhat sweet. Yes, appearances can be deceiving.
As a screenwriter, Edgerton best explores the conflict that springs when ghosts from the past expose lies from the present through his characters — and as a filmmaker, through some stellar performances. The director himself straddles the fine line between strange and sympathetic, Hall brings depth to the role of the woman trapped in the middle, and it's always a pleasure to see Bateman flirt with playing the bad guy (the murkiness surrounding Simon and Gordo is The Gift's strong point). When the film devolves into one too many twists, and tries to offer a too-definitive ending — when it finally gets there — it loses steam. Remaining ambiguous and toying with the dynamic between the central trio is what keeps things intriguing.
Accordingly, although The Gift may not always balance its generic elements with its ambitions, it revels in trying to present a well-produced piece of unnerving cinema. Here, it mostly succeeds too, because rare is the film that can balance overt jump scares with patient puzzling conveyed through dialogue, and follow a formula yet retain interest.
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